Smokey Bones CEO James O’Reilly believes the post-COVID consumer will demand more of casual dining. The reason being, the off-premises, on-premises dynamic has witnessed a structural change that isn’t reverting.
Over the past two or so years, lockdowns and personal safety fears led more guests to do business outside of restaurants, whether that came at a pickup window, in a curbside spot, or from their couch via delivery.
“A little bit more special,” O’Reilly told FSR of experiences today, “which underpins how consumers are spending in on-premises occasions. But all of this led us to ask, how do we support that and keep growing the company and growing the value and becoming more relevant to consumers?”
Put another way, full-service dining has taken on a celebratory feel. Meanwhile, convenience and the off-premises options guests relied on remain more prevalent than ever. So Smokey Bones wants to give diners both, but as only a sit-down chain can.
Starting in April, 61-unit Smokey Bones says it will become the first casual-dining brand in the U.S. to add a fully equipped all-digital drive-thru lane to its restaurants. The “all-digital” distinction is where the effort splits from other versions in the marketplace, Smokey Bones says. For all intents and purposes, it’s the equivalent of a full-tilt quick-service drive-thru attached to a casual-dining restaurant. While other brands have added designated pickup windows, Smokey Bones’ version features digital ordering boards, digital order confirmation, high-quality audio, a drive-up window for express menu pickup, and parking spots for the brand’s “Made Fresh for You” menu.
“Not only does a drive thru lane address the way people are dining today with more to go orders, but it makes it faster, easier, and more convenient for guests to enjoy Smokey Bones ‘anytime anywhere’—our vision for Smokey Bones’ off-premises dining,” O’Reilly said in a statement. “We believe drive thru is a next generation initiative for casual dining and has the potential to redefine what ‘fast casual’ really means.”
The first will open at Smokey Bones’ Bowling Green, Kentucky, restaurant. Another unique element in play will be a virtual tie-in of Smokey Bones’ digital brands—The Wing Experience and Burger Experience. Alongside regular offerings and the express menu, they will also be displayed at the drive-thru and available for pickup at the same window. The virtual concepts came to market in late 2019 and were, naturally, designed for off-premises execution from the outset.
" A majority of our virtual brand guests already are coming to the restaurant to pick up their order and take it away,” O’Reilly said. “This innovation makes it easier and more convenient for them.”
“We are excited to lead this initiative in Bowling Green as our first drive-thru location,” said Hal Lawlor, COO of Smokey Bones, in a statement. “We are committed to the community and proud of [GM] Casey Turner and the leadership team who will lead the way in preparing the staff for the new operational opportunities that come with a drive-thru. This will also create jobs as we’ll need additional staff to support this new piece of the business. Casey and team are ready and excited to add this convenient option for our valued guests.”
O'Reilly added Smokey Bones will look for employees with drive-thru experience.
O’Reilly, who has ample drive-thru experience from past stops (he served as CEO of Long John Silver’s and also clocked time at Sonic Drive-In and Yum! Brands overseas), said Smokey Bones will dedicate a space inside the unit around the drive-thru area, complete with a dedicated point of sale and drive-thru audio headsets, in addition to holding equipment for the “Made Fresh for You” items.
It won’t interfere with dine-in, either, as cars swing behind the store and exit off the other side of the restaurant.
As the brand develops the Bowling Green store and gains experience from the effort, it will “definitely” lead to building more across Smokey Bones’ portfolio, O’Reilly added. It could then evolve into ground-up development that starts with a drive-thru.
“Our destiny is in our own hands and our team is super energized and we want to lead,” he said.